Sex and Punishment

Saturday night, Dustin and I watched a movie we’ve been wanting to see for some time—I Am Love. It was a beautifully made film, with impeccable performances, and Tilda Swinton is a pleasure as a Russian emigre, “Emma”, who appears to have adapted entirely to her new life as the wife of a wealthy Italian industrialist, and the mother to his three beautiful children.

I couldn’t help but feel it was entirely destroyed by the plot twist (yes, spoiler) that comes when,after beginning a love affair with her oldest son’s best friend, Emma is punished for this by inadvertently causing the death of this son. He confronts her at a dinner party, sensing the truth, and as he tries to shrug her off, he falls, hits his head on the edge of a reflecting pool and dies.

The sex punishment plot twist, as this is known, is essentially a traditional mode for the punishment of the cheating spouse, usually a woman. It’s a genre of a kind: after an affair that reveals some truth to the main character about his or her life, a child dies, or they do, and whatever the story has been about before then, the message of it becomes infidelity will bring down the anger of the gods.

It’s constructed exactly like an infantile psychological response to the real thing–i.e., the writer or the director has this wish to punish the mother. But there’s no real reason to do it within the story, otherwise, there never is. And in this case, it takes the story out of the realm of the subtle–what would it be like, to be her, and to fall deeply in love with a boy her own son appears to be infatuated with?–and into the melodramatic, where the only meaning is “see you shouldn’t have done that.” Which makes this a lazy choice in fiction writing, especially as it engages in a sort of moral theater of the basest kind. All of the beautifully developed plot threads from before, the storylines running through, are cut off, to flounder helplessly against this immovable death. The mother is now a “bad mother”, and so she leaves, and runs off to a cave with her paramour, where they sit in a flickering light as the film ends. Anything you might have learned about human existence, female desire, fidelity, the love affair between a young man and an older woman, etc., is all lost in that flickering light, which is only an empty aesthetic gesture after the rest.

Seeking some kind of solace, I then put on the first episode of Brideshead Revisited, the TV play based on the novel by Evelyn Waugh. It holds up, though it too is a kind of sex punishment plot, just wrung out across decades, and the structure is elegant enough that, well, I won’t say you don’t mind, but at least it can’t be said to not teach something about humanity. The young Jeremy Irons is impeccable as Charles Ryder at both ages–as an aging officer in the British Army, and as a young man at Oxford, falling desperately in love with first Sebastian Flyte and then his sister, Julia.

The structure to the novel is quite elegant, and is essentially kept for the TV Play: Charles Ryder is setting up an army HQ in the English countryside at an estate he doesn’t recognize at first, and the first 30 minutes (and pages, in the novel) lead you to think you are in one kind of story, a war memoir, before he looks out at the estate and remembers. The war memoir opening transforms with the beautiful line “I knew all about it.” He goes first to his memory of the first time he saw the estate, and from there, the first time he met Sebastian, until, after finally seeming to find his footing in the past, the narrative pushes forward, to his first meeting with Julia and the glimpse he has of their future affair, when he lights her a cigarette and hands it to her as she drives.

The book is set up like a mirror, with Sebastian in foreground for the first half and Julia in front for the second, bookended by Charles’ time in the army. There’s even Sebastian through the looking glass, in a wheelchair with a wounded foot during the first half, needing Charles to look after him, and then with him looking after a lover with a wounded foot in the second half, when Sebastian is in an opium-induced descent. What he feared, that his family would take Charles from him, appears to have come true with Charles’ love for Julia. But in the end despite their passion and rightness for each other, their affair ends with Julia retreating.

No ones gets anything they want, not really. But by then, whatever happiness Sebastian, Julia and Charles are robbed of feels only like life. Each character has been, to the end, entirely themselves, character as destiny. We’ve seen Julia’s marriage unwind, Charles’ as well, we are hoping for their mutual escape from the misery of mutual isolation, and then it cannot quite appear. What melodrama there is here is confined to our fantasies for them, and by this I mean any of them.

I thought of this when a friend told me about her breakup today. I liked her ex, and was sad to hear of it. “Is he sorry now,” I asked her, of his inability to commit to her. “Yes,” she said. “But not sorry enough.” We laughed.

“There’s sorry, as in, ‘I will change for you’, and then there’s just ‘really sorry’,” she added by way of explanation. “Where they’re just not going to change. Lots of people, I think, are sorry that way,” she said. I knew what she meant.


  1. Of course, the sex punishment plot twist is the driving force behind most teen-oriented horror movies as well. No sooner do the kids start making out than a pair of garden shears goes through their throats.

    1. Yes, absolutely. Horror films are in fact a pornography that substitutes violent sex punishment for sex.

  2. Thanks for writing about this. I enjoyed reading your thoughts about this. Loved the film when I saw it, but I too was disappointed by the turn of the movie once the son dies. The aftermath was already going to be devastating without going straight to death as punishment.

    I’m sorry about your friend – that was a wise conversation.

    1. Thank you! I’m glad. And once you look at the framing, you can see it in a lot of things, not just this film.

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